A cool, clipped narrator narrating tales of espionage, spliced with sudden, deadly bleakness.
W Somerset Maugham was one of the most commercially successful British ‘popular literary authors’ of the first half of the twentieth century. His tone combined a certain waspishness, and indeed emotional coldness (no doubt a result of an emotionally cold childhood) with sudden, unexpected displays of heart. There is a cool precision in his writing, an absence of fussiness, that tells a narrative cleanly and simply, and describes character incisively.
This particular book, ‘Ashenden’ recounts the third person story of a writer, during the First World War, recruited by the Intelligence Department to go to neutral Switzerland, glean information, run Intelligence Operations, trap agents working for Germany, and later to travel to Russia on the eve of the Revolution, to prevent the Russian Revolution and to keep Russia engaged in the war on the Allied side. The book consists of short chapters in which our hero, urbane and observant, plays the espionage game with Bond like suavity (reputedly this book did exert some influence on Fleming) Though Ashenden himself is not the one who dispatches those agents who are spying for Prussia, he certainly lays the traps which will end in their executions by firing squad or dispatching by other means.
What is however the real hook for the modern reader is that Maugham himself was that writer, recruited by the Intelligence Agency, sent to neutral Switzerland and to Russia, with those goals, and the stories told here are factual, ‘from his case-book, as it were, though shaped and tidied, as Maugham explains in his foreword, for ‘the purposes of fiction’ :
Fact is a poor story – teller It starts a story at haphazard, generally long before the beginning, rambles on inconsequently and tails off, leaving loose ends hanging about, without a conclusion
By all accounts, Winston Churchill asked Maugham to burn some of the stories which WERE to have appeared in this book, originally published in 1928, as they breached the Official Secrets Act.
These are beautifully constructed stories, though perhaps Maugham’s/Ashenden’s in the main rather chilly, mildly amused urbanity does tend to hold the reader also away from emotional engagement. Having said that, this is a device which then works brilliantly in the ‘wrap’ of 2 or 3 of the stories where Ashenden’s rather emotionally inhibited, intelligent, ironic, cultured persona temporarily reveals a sombre, bleak acknowledgement that playing the undoubted game of espionage can create collateral damage in the lives of innocents. The story called ‘The Hairless Mexican’ would be an excellent fictional story, but the suspicion it may not be completely fiction delivers the killer punch to the reader.
Maugham’s disciplined writing, refusing to emote, merely displaying an event dispassionately, without comment, letting the reader make the judgement, gives the kick to the solar plexus. I think it is the uneasy knowledge that these stories are not really quite fiction, which is responsible for that kick